by Maria M. Rider
"Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you what you are."
"Allez Cuisine!!" ("Start Cooking!" for the French-impaired) bellows the Liberace-esque Kaga, Head of the Gourmet Academy and "King" of the Kitchen Stadium, for the start of the Cooking Battle Japanese hit cult show, Iron Chef. One cannot completely describe the awe-inspiring Kitchen Stadium except to say it is truly a stadium likened to the Medieval Times Dinner and Show franchise. From the iron torches on tall poles lining a red carpeted walkway to the center of the magnificent Kitchen Stadium, Kaga and his Iron Chefs welcome any and all challengers to the arena of gastronomic wonders!
Iron Chef (Ryori no Tetsujin) is a cooking show where an eccentric gourmet played by Kaga Takeshi lives with his Iron Chefs in a castle and leads the Gourmet Academy in which lies the Kitchen Stadium. The Kitchen Stadium is an arena where Kaga's Iron Chefs, who are the best in their cuisines, battle against other chefs of equal note in an hour long cooking battle. Kaga chooses chefs to accept the battle with one of the Iron Chefs every week and a single theme ingredient is announced that sets the battle for the show. The chosen Iron Chef and the Challenger Chef must then prepare a multi-course meal for Kaga and a panel of four judges usually made up of actors, food critics, singers, and even House members. After the battle is done, there is a tasting and then a final judgment by the panel.
Iron Chef is not your ordinary cooking show where you just see a chef cooking, not by a longshot! The intense appeal of the show is the play-by-play sports-like commentary by Ohta Shinichiro (Sidelines Reporter), Fukui Kenji (Main Announcer), and Hattori Yukio (Culinary Expert Announcer). Ohta is the Man on the Floor and he gives Fukui the specifics on ingredients used and a bit of insight into each of the chefs during the battle. Fukui is the main announcer and comments in a sportscaster style the start of the battle, the progression of the battle, and the final decision. Hattori is the culinary expert and Fukui's companion announcer, who gives more specific culinary comments during the battle. The Guest Panelists add their comments on culinary knowledge together with Fukui, Hattori, and Ohta on how each chef is handling the theme ingredient.
The Iron Chefs, the top chefs in their specialty cuisines: Japanese, Chinese, French, and Italian, dress in silken garb designed for their particular cuisines. Iron Chef Japanese, Morimoto Masaharu, owner and head chef at the popular high-class Japanese restaurant Nobu in New York, wears the silver chef garb with a U.S. flag on the back. Iron Chef French, Sakai Hiroyuki, head chef at La Rochelle in Tokyo, dons the red chef garb. Iron Chef Chinese, Chen Kenichi, owner and master chef at Akasaka Szechwan Restaurant also in Tokyo, wears the yellow chef garb. Finally, Iron Chef Italian, Kobe Masahiko, master chef at Il Penne, dons the red, green and white chef garb.
[Editor's note: Readers interested in more information on these fine restaurants as well as the challenger chefs' restaurants should check out the Iron Chef Website.]
The show itself follows a distinctive format: there is the dramatic opening where Fukui tells of Kaga's adventures in searching for the best gourmet dishes to be had around the world and that Kaga built the Kitchen Stadium and gathered the top chefs in order to pursue this dream. The opening is very well done and sets the tone for the show. The viewer does not get a full effect of Iron Chef until he sees the opening. Kind of overdramatic at worst, it is quite an interesting and enjoyable twist to your everyday cooking contest type shows like Ready, Set, Cook! on the Food Network. Introducing the show, Kaga steps out onto the stage, surveys the arena, and picks up a perfect yellow pepper, which he bites into with gusto. Making for an awesome scene, the camera view changes from an extreme close-up of Kaga with a "take over the world" look in his eye to the pan shot of numerous sous chefs standing proudly under him. Even the Iron Chef logo looks impressive as it is set ablaze and has a stony texture to it.
After the opening, Kaga tells his tale of his search for the Challenger Chef of the week. He explains in detail the background of the Challenger Chef in a very robust fashion much like a featurette or documentary. Even the Challenger Chef is given the dramatic treatment with a final pose at the end of his documentary in which the Challenger Chef and his staff stand proudly awaiting the battle ahead.
With that said, the Challenger Chef makes his way into the Kitchen Stadium via a red carpeted walkway to the awaiting Kaga to accept his challenge. After Kaga greets the Challenger Chef, he announces, "I now call upon the Iron Chefs!" Upon a high pedestal there are large photos of each Iron Chef placed in archways, and from below the three Iron Chefs rise to meet their competition. Kaga asks the Challenger who he would like to choose to battle against him. Usually, it is the Iron Chef that matches the cuisine the Challenger is best at (Japanese vs. Japanese, Chinese vs. Chinese etc.), but sometimes the Challenger surprises Kaga and chooses another Iron Chef from a different cuisine entirely, which makes things more interesting. The Iron Chef descends into the Kitchen Stadium Arena and Kaga stands on a platform above them to introduce the theme ingredient. Like the Iron Chefs, the theme ingredient is displayed in a very decorative fashion and rises from below to keep with the dramatics of the show. Kaga introduces it, and the chefs have five minutes to gather their wits and figure out what they will cook in an hour. Going beyond this author's comprehension, the ingredients can be anything from rice to broccoli and with the chefs' exceptional talents, making many different dishes in an hour is not difficult. Nevertheless, this is what makes Iron Chef, so exhilarating because there is not another show that can boast this much excitement with cooking.
Then, with the "Gong of Fate" resounding and Kaga's announcement of "Allez Cuisine!" the battle is on and the show shifts gears to give the viewer a unique perspective on preparing meals in under an hour. Talk about your quick turnarounds! Fortunately, each chef has sous chefs (other chefs whom help prepare food for the main chef), so it is not just one man doing everything, which would be impossible to do in an hour. The Kitchen Stadium Arena is made up of an array of large ovens, multiple stovetops, and other appliances, including an industrial ice cream maker, which the chefs use to prepare their culinary masterpieces. A female voice announces the time that is left in the battle for the viewers, and Ohta, Fukui, and Hattori move the show along with their commentary.
Fukui is the guide to the show's play-by-play sports-like commentary; he acts as the mediator between Ohta and Hattori who add in their own commentary to make it more detailed and informative. He also announces and describes the chosen Iron Chef, which is accompanied by a myriad of black and white photographs that end with fiery kanji on a black background that spell out the Iron Chef's name. Idle comments from the panel of guests add even more interesting insight into the show's progress. The fast talking Ohta livens up the pace of the commentary as he reports on the questioned ingredients from the main floor to Fukui. With a "Fukui-san?", Ohta gets his chance to give the lowdown on what is going on in the arena that he cannot see from the viewing booth.
After the battle is done, Fukui describes the dishes prepared by the chefs and then introduces the next part of the show, the Tasting. The Tasting is when Kaga and four other judges, some of which are made of the Guest Commentators and two independent judges, sit down and eat the products of the battles. Each judge, except Kaga, comments on the taste of the food or the texture of the food with the chef observing. Each of the chefs has his turn at the tasting and then comes the moment of truth, the Judgment. The Judgment is when Kaga and the judges come back out onto the main stage of the Kitchen Stadium Arena to give their verdict. "Who will win this battle?" comments Fukui as the stage is brought to an uncomfortable pause of silence.
According to a twenty point scale, Kaga announces the winner from the scores tallied up by each of the judges. Much fanfare and celebration surrounds the victor and to him go the spoils of recognition and accomplishment. The chefs congratulate each other for a battle well done and the show sadly ends. An hour does not seem like enough, but there is always next week, right?
The camera work in this show is very well-choreographed. The team of cameramen roving around the chefs at work give the viewer a more up-close and personal view of the battle from the camera's eye. Also, the dramatic close-ups and pull backs of the cameras throughout the show add to the unique flavor of the show. The viewer can literally smell and feel the tension as well as the dishes being prepared thanks to the quick camerawork.
And what would a show be without music? Yes, even Iron Chef has music and classical music. The music has a Kanno Yoko feel to it like the background music for Escaflowne or Memories -- "Magnetic Rose". It is a mix of driving drums to strong choirs chanting the start of the impending battle like in the movie Braveheart or classical medieval battle songs. The music definitely drives the show and completes this great recipe for a hit show.
The centerpiece of this show is the set of Kitchen Stadium. Literally, something to behold, the Iron Chefs' pedestal is made from wood with two eagle-type creatures on either side of the three large archways. Directly in front of it is the theme ingredient and judgment pedestal where sits not only the main ingredient, but after the battle a beautiful glass award for the victor. To the outer perimeter of the set sit two viewing booths that have a beautiful medieval paintings upon the walls. To the left is the Royal Box where the entourage of the challenger sit as well as other special spectators, and to the right is the Viewing Booth where Hattori, two to three celebrities, and Fukui sit to give their play-by-play commentary during the battle. The arena floor is fashioned with a mix of exquisite marble and redwood that is fully deserving of this high-class show. Truly, someone definitely had a vivid imagination when they built this set which is torn down after every filming.
The dub of the show is well-done, but definitely needs some getting used to. A lot is being said at the same time between Fukui and Hattori, and the information sometimes get crossed. The author wishes they use other voice actors for the young female celebrity in each of the shows because she soon noticed it is the same voice week after week. The voice for Fukui sounds rather young for the original Japanese announcer. The rest of the voices are passable, but the main voices are what counts most. Fukui's and Ohta's voices have been well chosen because they sound a lot like sportscasters that Americans can recognize. Like other dubs, this one is not immune to the puns that appear from time to time that are sometimes "painful," but mostly draw chuckles out of this author. Others may be turned off by the fact it is dubbed, but it does take some getting used to. Give it a chance.
The episodes airing on the Food Network come from the fifth season of Iron Chef. The show premiered on 10 October 1993 and has been running for six strong years, but is sadly ending this year. Iron Chef aired subtitled in certain parts of the U.S. for a number of years before its eventual debut on 9 July 1999 on the Food Network.
The author enjoys cooking shows as a whole (the Food Network is one of her favorite cable channels) and Iron Chef definitely fits the bill and then some. It is fun to watch as well as informative to the viewers. One can understand by just watching one show why this show became such a cult favorite in Japan. The whole ambiance and setting as well as the awesome Kitchen Stadium set makes Iron Chef a most enjoyable to watch!